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Elizabeth Lanzo O/B/O J.I.C v. Michael J. Astrue

March 11, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court


1. Plaintiff challenges an Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") decision that her minor son, JIC, is not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act ("the Act"). Plaintiff alleges that JIC has been disabled from April 1, 2007 to October 23, 2009, due to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD") and anxiety disorder, and is therefore entitled to payment of Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Act.

2. Plaintiff filed the instant application for SSI benefits on JIC's behalf on June 11, 2007. Her application was denied. A hearing was then held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Timothy M. McGuan on October 8, 2009, at which Plaintiff and JIC appeared and claimant's mother testified. The ALJ considered the case de novo, and on October 23, 2009, issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application for SSI. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on February 18, 2010. Plaintiff filed the current civil action on April 1, 2010, challenging Defendant's final decision.*fn1

3. On September 8, 2010, Defendant filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. On September 9, 2010, Plaintiff followed suit and filed her own Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c). For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion is granted and Plaintiff's motion is denied.

4. A court reviewing a denial of disability benefits may not determine de novo whether an individual is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. § § 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Wagner v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 906 F.2d 856, 860 (2d Cir. 1990). Rather, the Commissioner's determination will be reversed only if it is not supported by substantial evidence or there has been a legal error. See Grey v. Heckler, 721 F.2d 41, 46 (2d Cir. 1983); Marcus v. Califano, 615 F.2d 23, 27 (2d Cir. 1979). Substantial evidence is that which amounts to "more than a mere scintilla," and it has been defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842 (1971). Where evidence is deemed susceptible to more than one rational interpretation, the Commissioner's conclusion must be upheld. See Rutherford v. Schweiker, 685 F.2d 60, 62 (2d Cir. 1982).

5. "To determine on appeal whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court considers the whole record, examining the evidence from both sides, because an analysis of the substantiality of the evidence must also include that which detracts from its weight." Williams on Behalf of Williams v. Bowen, 859 F.2d 255, 258 (2d Cir. 1988). If supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's finding must be sustained "even where substantial evidence may support the plaintiff's position and despite that the court's independent analysis of the evidence may differ from the [Commissioner's]." Rosado v. Sullivan, 805 F. Supp. 147, 153 (S.D.N.Y. 1992). In other words, this Court must afford the Commissioner's determination considerable deference, and will not substitute "its own judgment for that of the [Commissioner], even if it might justifiably have reached a different result upon a de novo review." Valente v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 733 F.2d 1037, 1041 (2d Cir. 1984).

6. On August 22, 1996, Congress enacted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity and Reconciliation Act of 1996 ("the 1996 Act"), which amended the statutory standard for children seeking SSI benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 1382c. In relevant part, the 1996 Act provides that an "individual under the age of 18 shall be considered disabled . . . if [he or she] has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(C)(I).

7. Regulations promulgated by the Social Security Administration ("SSA") define "marked and severe functional limitations" in terms of "listing-level severity," i.e., an impairment that meets, medically equals, or functionally equals the severity of an impairment in the listings. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a). In accordance with the regulations, a child's functional limitations are evaluated in six broad areas or domains of functioning:

(I) acquiring and using information; (ii) attending and completing tasks; (iii) interacting and relating with others; (iv) moving about and manipulating objects; (v) caring for oneself; and (vi) health and physical well-being. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b).

8. The Commissioner has established a three-step sequential evaluation process to determine whether a child is disabled as defined under the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. Specifically, the child must demonstrate that: (1) he or she is not working; (2) he or she has a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments; and (3) his or her impairment or combination of impairments is of listing-level severity, in that it meets, medically equals, or functionally equals the severity of a listed impairment.See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. A child's medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments "functionally equals" a listed impairment if it results in "marked" limitations in two domains of functioning or an "extreme" limitation in one domain. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a.

9. Applying the sequential evaluation in the instant case, the ALJ found: (1) JIC had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since June 11, 2007 (R. at 11);*fn2 (2) JIC has ADHD and anxiety disorder, which constitute severe impairments under the Act (R. at 11); and (3) JIC's impairments did not meet or medically equal any listed impairments (R. at 11). In addition, the ALJ evaluated JIC's mental impairments to determine if they were "functionally equivalent" to a listed impairment. (R. at 11-18.) The ALJ noted that the evidence revealed that JIC had less than marked limitation in attending and completing tasks and no limitations in any other domain and therefore concluded that JIC's impairments were not functionally equal to a listed impairment. (R. at 11-18.) Based on the record, the ALJ ultimately determined that JIC was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, at any time from the date the application was filed, through the date of the decision, October 23, 2009. (R. at 19.)

10. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's determination that JIC had no marked limitations in his ability to acquire and use information, attend and complete tasks, and interact and relate with others is not supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ did not provide sufficient explanation in his discussion of these three domains. Plaintiff specifically points to the absence of any medical expert testimony, the ALJ's failure to discuss the effects of a structured or highly supportive environment, and the need to give greater consideration to the information provided by JIC's mother. Moreover, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly disregarded the testimony of the claimant's mother.

11. Having reviewed the ALJ's decision in light of Plaintiff's arguments, this Court finds no error. The decision contains an adequate discussion of the evidence supporting the ALJ's determination that JIC was not disabled. Additionally, the ALJ was not required to find the claimant's mother's testimony credible.

12. Considering first the domain of acquiring and using information, this domain considers how well a claimant can "acquire or learn information, and how well [he] use[s] the information . . . learned." 20 C.F.R. ยง 416.926a(g). As to this domain, the ALJ found that there was no evidence that JIC had any problems acquiring or using information. The ALJ specifically noted that JIC passed the first grade, even though he missed over 25 days from school. Plaintiff points out that the ALJ did not ...

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